Kellogg Magazine  |  Spring/Summer 2018



lee pillsbury
Insight + Inspiration = Innovation

Lee Pillsbury '82 finds inspiration in the soda aisle of the supermarket and the waiting room of a hospital.

Pillsbury is a pioneer in the hospitality industry who keeps blazing new trails. He helped Marriott grow into a hotel giant and has launched and directed close to 20 companies. He's now managing director of Thayer Ventures, which invests in such startups as TripBAM, a hotel booking platform that automatically rebooks clients at lower rates, and ADARA, a co-op that gleans data from major airlines, hotel chains and travel websites.

Pillsbury advises hospitality professionals to think of themselves as race-car drivers: constantly looking around the corner and down the road. How? By practicing the three I's: insight, inspiration and innovation.

Insight means having a deep understanding of your business and its customers. Inspiration comes from drawing additional insights from other industries. Combine the two to create innovation – the formula has been a driving factor in Pillsbury's success.

Shortly after graduating from Kellogg, he was promoted to head of strategy at Marriott and helped the company grow quickly. He showed chief executive officer Bill Marriott the array of soda products in the local grocery store, noting the way a few key companies were responsible for most of the products. "If you want to be a big company, you've got to look like Coke or Pepsi," he told the boss. The company launched the Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn and Courtyard brands and built 42 hotels in Atlanta in the next three years. Marriott now has 30 brands.

"The first trait I look for in somebody to join my team is curiosity."
A more recent example: A little more than two years ago, Pillsbury's wife, Mary, was scheduled for an hour-long surgery. But Pillsbury was left waiting eight hours before he heard from anyone about her status. The nerve-racking delay led Pillsbury to launch TenX Healthcare, which tracks patients through surgery and recovery – and increases revenue for hospitals by using operating rooms more efficiently. Its next innovation is an app to give updates on patients to their loved ones.

"Everything we do in the hotel and restaurant business to drive efficiency – to keep the rooms full, to keep the tables turning quickly – all those techniques and technologies we can apply here," he says.

Practicing such disruption requires constantly asking questions. "The first trait I look for in somebody to join my team is curiosity and inquisitiveness. I look for 20-somethings who think like 4-year-olds: 'Why, Mommy, why?'" he says, laughing. "It's always about asking the right question."